Mill Valley Film Festival Preview, Part II

Since I wrote Part 1, I’ve managed to see three additional movies that will screen at the upcoming Mill Valley Film Festival. Here’s what I thought of them, in order of best to worst.

A Hide and Seek 
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Four young adults, two women and two men, move into a large and remote country house, intent on a life of self-discovery and sex. Mostly sex. That sounds like a wild fling, but everything is oddly planned and organized. For instance, they have a schedule defining who will sleep with who each night. Of course, things won’t stay that organized. For a drama and character study, Hide and Seek is unusually upbeat, and has surprisingly little dialog. Much goes unexplained–finances, for instance. And yet, through looks, gestures, and some well-chosen words, we come to know these four extremely well–and not only because we see a lot of them with their clothes off. A remarkable work, and a pretty explicit one.

  • Sequoia, Saturday October 4, 3:00
  • Rafael, Monday, October 6, 3:30

B- For Those About to Rock: The Story of Rodrigo y Gabriela
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For the first two thirds of its 84-minute runtime, this is yet another music documentary woefully lacking in music. We watch and hear Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintera talk about their music and their struggles to get recognized. We learn how they developed their unique style–which I’d describe as instrumental, acoustic heavy metal with a Latin flare–in their native Mexico City, and how they found fame in Ireland. But you only hear the music itself in brief snatches, much of it as basic movie background music. You never hear a song all the way through, and get only quick glimpses of what makes these two worth being the subject of a documentary. But then, almost an hour into the movie, it becomes the concert film it should always have been, and thus becomes exciting and magical.

  • Rafael, Sunday, October 5, 8:00
  • Rafael, Tuesday, October 7, 2:15

C Tu Dors Nicole
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Like its main character, this low-key French-Canadian comedy/drama seems to make a point of going nowhere. That would be fine if it was already in an interesting place. The protagonist is a young woman sharing in her parent’s comfortable home (while they’re out of town) with her brother and his band. Early on, writer/director Stéphane Lafleur shows a nice touch for quiet, off-beat humor, with an awkward end to a one-night-stand and a 10-year-old boy with the baritone voice of a large man. But the humor dries up soon, and then there’s nothing left but characters who–aside from some occasional moments–are neither deep nor interesting.

  • Rafael, Friday, October 10, 3:45
  • Sequoia, Saturday, October 11, 8:45

Mill Valley Film Festival Preview, Part 1

Here are three movies that I’ve been able to preview for this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival. I’ve listed them in order of best to worst. There will be more to come.

A- Two Days, One Night

The boss gives his employees a choice: Either Sandra (Marion Cotillard) keeps her job, or everyone else receives a large bonus. Over the weekend, Sandra must visit 16 workers and convince a majority to sacrifice €1,000 for her sake. To make matters worse, Sandra is recovering from severe depression and has become dependent on pills. This latest film from the Dardenne brothers gives us modern capitalism in a nutshell. Workers, who would naturally be allies, are forced to fight over the limited resources available to pay non-management employees. But it never feels like a political tract. It feels like a very real situation, where everyone must make a difficult decision that will inevitably result in moral compromise.

  • Sequoia, Saturday, October 11, 5:4
  • Rafael, Sunday, October 12, 2:00

B+ Clouds of Sils Maria
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A great actress (Juliette Binoche) reluctantly accepts a part in a revival of the play that made her famous, but this time, she’ll be playing a different, older character. To prepare for the role, the actress and her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) take up residence in a remote house located in an astonishingly beautiful part of the Swiss Alps. As they run lines, they almost unconsciously work through their own complicated relationship, which slightly echoes play’s characters, but not enough (thankfully) to become an allegory. This isn’t quite a two-person film, but Binoche and Stewart truly carry the picture.

  • Sequoia, Friday, October 3, 8:45. Sold out. Rush tickets may be available at showtime.
  • Rafael, Monday, October 6, 1:00.

D Soul of a Banquet
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In his first documentary, the usually reliable Wayne Wang appears to have missed the point. He suggests that his subject, restaurateur Cecilia Chiang, led a fascinating and exciting life. But he gives us little information, and spends most of the picture just showing us food. The biographical first third offers tantalizing hints at Chiang’s history and her importance in the development of Chinese-American cuisine, but Wang doesn’t give us enough information to prove his argument. The following two thirds is just food porn, with close-ups of succulent dishes being prepared, served, and eaten.

  • Rafael,  Sunday, October 5, 5:00. Director Wayne Wang and subject Cecilia Chiang in attendance.
  • Sequoia, Tuesday, October 7, 2:15.

This year’s Mill Valley Film Festival announced

The California Film Institute today announced the 37th annual Mill Valley Film Festival–which, as usual, doesn’t stay in Mill Valley. Major events will take place in San Rafael and Corte Madera.

This festival provides the Bay Area with our first look at this year’s Oscar bait. Consider this: For the last four years in a row, the Best Picture winner had its local premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival. That’s The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo, and 12 Year a Slave.

The festival runs in early October, from the 2nd to the 12th of that month. Those are problematic dates for practicing Jews like myself. Yom Kippur will make the first two full days of the festival impossible. It also interferes with the festival of Sukkot. But for most people, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Some highlights:

  • Following Mill Valley tradition, the festival will launch with two opening night films in different theaters. The Homesman is an "anti-western" written and directed by Tommy Lee Jones and starring Hilary Swank. The other opening night film, Men, Women and Children, has an ensemble cast and was directed by Jason Reitman.
  • Amongst the performers and filmmakers being celebrated with spotlights and honors are Eddie Redmayne (who plays a young Stephen Hawking in Theory of Everything), Elle Fanning (although, in my opinion, a 16-year-old is a little young for a life achievement award), the talented documentarian and clip editor Chuck Workman, and the late Robin Williams (that event will be free, but tickets will still be required).
  • Classic movies will include The Empire Strikes Back and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Both of these will be screened at the Century Cinema Corte Madera, which has one of the largest screens in the Bay Area.
  • The Centerpiece film will be Mike Binder’s Black and White. It’s about race, not photography.
  • Technology and cinema come together in the Amazing 4K Film Showcase, a competition of short films shot in ultra-high definition. These will screen at the CinéArts@Sequoia, since the Rafael does not yet have 4K projection.
  • As always, the Festival offers selections of films built around a genre or theme. This year, they’re calling one such focus Humor – In the Jocular Vein (as I write this, that link is dead, but hopefully it won’t be for long). This will include What We Do in the Shadows, a vampire comedy from New Zealand, and the Croatian comedy Cowboys,
  • Only one picture, the Japanese drama The Little House, will be screened in 35mm. Everything else will be digital.
  • The festival will end with Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, who will be in attendance. It was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who made The Dallas Buyers Club.

As I write this, I’ve seen one new film screening at the festival, Two Days, One Night. I’ll tell you about it, and about other films I can preview, before the festival opens.

Steve McQueen and 12 Years a Slave

I attended the Mill Valley Film Festival screening of 12 Years a Slave Friday night. Absolutely amazing.

True story: In 1841, Con artists kidnapped Solomon Northup–a free-born African American living in upstate New York–and sold him into slavery down south. Movie: This film shows us the horrors of slavery through the eyes of an educated man turned into a beast of burden. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Northup, horrified, trapped, and mostly helpless. Beautiful yet daring photography, combined with minimalist editing, intensify the horrors. Easily the best new film I’ve seen this year.

I’m giving it an A, although it’s far better than most of the films I give that grade to.

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After the film, Festival Executive Director Mark Fishkin and Director of Programming Zoë Elton brought up director Steve McQueen (not related to the late American movie star with the same name), star Chiwetel Ejiofor, and supporting player Lupita Nyong’o. Both McQueen and Ejiofor received awards.

Then Fishkin left the stage, and Elton moderated the Q&A with the filmmakers. Here are some highlights, with no guarantee that every quote is 100% accurate. I was typing as fast as I can.

  • Ejiofor: I’ll have a life before [making this film] and a life after it. The process, the way Steve works with actors, the whole cast and crew, was amazing. Everyone was enabled and allowed to bring their creativity to the process. It changed my relationship to acting.
  • McQueen: I wanted to make a film about slavery because I felt in the history of film this subject had not been tackled. My wife discovered the book [the non-fiction memoir that the film was based on]. I’d never heard of it. Everyone knows The Diary of Anne Frank. Every school should have this book on their curriculum…To me this book is a kind of a gift to the world.
  • Elton asked if the film would have been less effective if it had been made by an American (McQueen is a black Englishman). McQueen: No. I’m not a nationalist. The only difference between me and an African-American is that my parents’ boat went left instead of right.
  • An audience member pointed out the difficult subjects covered not only in 12 Years a Slave, but also in his last film, Shame. "Where do you draw the line?" McQueen:: I draw the line at the truth.
  • Someone asked about the lack of editing in a particularly harrowing whipping scene. McQueen: I don’t do coverage. For me it’s a waste of time. I know what I want. That scene was about being in real time. not letting the audience off the hook.

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12 Years a Slave will screen again at the festival, at the Sequoia, Sunday at 11:00am. The screening is sold out, but there may be rush tickets available.

Fox Searchlight has picked up the film, and it will receive a regular theatrical release. I’ll post a full review before the film opens.

Mill Valley Film Festival Report: Costa-Gavras Tribute

Greek/French filmmaker Costa-Gavras has been making slick, exciting political films since the 1960s. His works have attacked Fascism, Communism, American foreign policy, and a Pope. Friday night, he stepped up onto the stage at the Rafael‘s downstairs auditorium to discuss his career and screen his latest film.

But he didn’t step up on time. The Mill Valley Film Festival event honoring him started 20 minutes late. A festival representative told us that they were "waiting for talent to arrive." I’m not sure if the tardy talent was Costa-Gavras, or the program’s moderator, actor Peter Coyote.

But once they were both onstage, all was forgiven.

imageCoyote started by asking the Greek-born director about his family history and how that effected his world view. His father resisted during the German occupation, but he hated the Greek king almost as much as the Nazis. This got him, and his family, into trouble. "He lost his job, and his son couldn’t go to the university for years. I needed a certificate that my parents weren’t Communist or left…The King’s family was a half-Nazi family."

Not surprisingly, most of the talk was about politics, and about the problems of financing political films. "I made movies to teach people."

Costa-Gavras is a leftist, but he made it clear that he’s open-minded. "There are good people everywhere. And there are bad people on the left as well as the right."

imageThey talked quite a bit about his first American film, Missing. He was given the book, and an existing script which he didn’t like. He told Universal Studios that "I would like to do the book, but only the last seven pages when the father is looking for his son."

Contrary to what we expect, Universal didn’t pressure him to tone down the film. They were, however, reluctant to cast Jack Lemmon in the lead, because it wasn’t a comedy. Both Costa-Gavras and Universal were sued for defamation by people the film criticized. "We won. We also won the Oscar for best screenplay."

After talking about some of his other works, they introduced the evening’s feature–his latest film, Capital. "I hope the audience will be disturbed. I hope you will be disturbed."

I’m giving Capital an A-.

Gad Elmaleh stars as Marc Tourneuil, a young bank officer who by a stroke of luck becomes CEO of one of the largest banks in Europe. Soon, an American hedge fund wants to do business with him. Or maybe the hedge fund wants to take over his business and destroy him. Early on, Marc shows some signs of scruples,but he’s soon playing the Americans’ games, laying off thousands of people in order to improve the company’s stock price. He’s definitely Capital’s protagonist, but I’d be hard put to call him the hero, since he spends so much time acting like a villain. Much of the film’s financial talk went over my head, but the human factors driving and being driven by the high-stakes poker game were all I needed to enjoy Capital.

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Friday’s screening was the Bay Area’s premiere. The film will open in theaters in early November.

After the screening, Costa-Gavras and Coyote returned to the stage to discuss the film:

  • How did he research Capital? "First, from the book. But I had to go myself to do a lot of research. I thought the book was very outrageous [in how much money these people made]. But I talked to a bank executive and he said that the numbers were too low."
  • "I wanted to make movie about how money effects us."
  • On the differences between European and  American banking: "There are no regulations here. The system is completely free. There are more regulations in France, but there are less of them then there used to be. In all democracies, power is now with the people who have the money."

In the last part of the evening, Costa Gavras took questions from the audience.

  • On the overwhelming presence of technology in the film: It’s "reality. They live in a world where they talk to each other with new technology. It’s everywhere."
  • "Cinema can change society. We don’t work for the government, we make movies with our thinking, our questioning. Cinema can be free. Much freer than television." (Personally, I don’t agree with that statement. A TV show like The Wire could only have been made with a great deal of freedom.)
  • Are Euopean banks really that different? That pure? "They used to be a little better. The problem is that there is no global regulation. If it’s not global, it’s a mess."

Mill Valley Film Festival Preview

I’ve managed to preview three (well, two and a half) features that will screen at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Here’s what I thought of them:

A Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine
If a film makes me cry, it gets an A. This documentary about the imagehorrific, homophobic murder of a young gay man had me all but audibly sobbing. In 1998, Matthew Shepard was savagely beaten, tortured, tied to a fence, and left to die. In telling his story, Director Michele Josue wisely focuses on his friends and–more importantly–his parents. The result is deeply sad, but also inspiring, because you meet so many decent, loving human beings.

Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine will screen at the Sequoia Friday, October 4, at 6:30, and at the Rafael Sunday, October 6, at 8:30. The Friday screening, simultaneous with a screening in Washington D.C., will be its world premiere.

B+ Beside Still Waters
Six high school friends now in their 20s gather for a party in the aftermath of an accident that robbed one of them of his parents. They drink, talk, drink, pair off for sex, drink, drive recklessly, and drink some more. Yes, it’s a imagemillennial variation on The Big Chill and The Return of the Secaucus 7–it even has the new boyfriend character that none of the gang knows. But a good story can be done more than once, and the vivid characters are both believable and fun. In the film’s best scene, editor Nick Houy cuts quickly between three conversations about the previous night’s escapades, allowing us to hear the same story from female and male points of view. What it lacks is the sense of lost political innocence that drove the other films. The result feels both funny and sad…and rewarding. You can say the same about life.

Beside Still Waters will screen at the Sequoia on Saturday, October 12, at 6:30 with director/co-writer Chris Lowell in attendance, with a party afterwards at the Tiburon Tavern. It will screen again at the Rafael Sunday, October 13, at 2:15.

Toxic Hot Seat 
I only saw the first half–and a bit more–of this activist documentary, so I’m not giving it a grade. From what I saw, Toxic Hot Seat is imageunsettling, disturbing, and scary. It makes its point very well. Directors James Redford & Kirby Walker take a hard look at the cancer-causing fire retardants used in our furniture,  arguing that whatever advantages they give us in fire reduction are minimal compared to their long-term damage. The filmmakers allow opposing experts to have their say, but the movie is clearly on the side of getting rid of these chemicals. I wish I could have seen the rest of it.

Toxic Hot Seat  will screen twice, both times Saturday matinees at the Sequoia. The first screening, at 5:00 on October 5, is sold out, although there may be rush tickets. The second screening is on October 12, at 2:00.

This year’s Mill Valley Film Festival Announced Today

In the Bay Area, we have film festivals for Jews, Arabs, Irish, atheists, Asians, South Asians, Asian Americans, blacks, gays, and gay blacks. We have festivals for people who love silent movies, film noir, comedy, and horror.

And we have film festivals for people who just love movies. The Mill Valley Film Festival is one of the bigger generic film festivals in the area. And because of its late summer-early fall position on the calendar, it’s our local preview for much of the year’s Oscar bait–in other words, the films most likely to win Best Picture.

This year’s festival runs from October 3 to October 13, mostly in San Rafael and, of course, Mill Valley.

Some promising highlights:

  • The festival opens simultaneously with two films: The Book Thief Alexander Payne’s Nebraska . The very first Mill Valley Film Festival opened with Payne’s Election.
  • Amongst the directors honored will be Costa Gavras, Ben Stiller (yes, I know you think of him as an actor, but he’s directed some good movies), and Steve McQueen (the British director of Shame, not the dead American star).  Each director will be honored with a screening of their new, not-yet-released feature. I’m particularly curious about McQueen’s film, 12 Years a Slave.
  • Four Japanese films will highlight directors of different generations. These will include the classic My Neighbor Totoro and a remake of Ozu’s Tokyo Story called Tokyo Family.
  • The drama Generation War looks at German youth in 1941 and beyond.
  • Among the actors getting special attention is former child star Dakota Fanning, star of Effie Gray, which the festival is describing as her first adult leading role.
  • Several documentaries have environmental themes, including Toxic Hot Seat, The Human Experiment,  and the epic, three-part Standing on Sacred Ground.
  • The Festival will close with Stiller’s movie, yet another adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

As usual, I’ll preview some of the films beforehand, and let you know what I think about them.

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